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A tribute

I used to repeatedly tell my friend Robin Smith that my professional motto in life is: WWRD? (What Would Robin Do?) I think she thought I was joking, but I wasn’t. I know enough to respect those who came before me in the field of children’s literature — to know their names and read their work. Not that Robin was that much older than me, mind you, but when I met her in 2010, her reputation preceded her, and even though we both lived in middle Tennessee we had yet to cross paths.

She invited me to come visit her classroom (it was the weekend of the infamous Nashville floods) and, specifically, to see her classroom library. She was proud of it, and had every reason to be as the energetic and devoted teacher to second graders that she was for nearly 25 years. She was heavily involved in the field of children’s literature and an active member of ALA. (Countless ALA members are going to mourn the absence of her knitting needles as she sits in the back of the room during Notables discussions, listening and knitting.) She was opinionated about children’s books and bullheaded about only putting the good ones in children’s hands. Because of all her smart work at The Horn Book and in ALA (just to mention two places), that first month I knew her I kept mistakenly referring to her as a librarian. I walked into her school that first day and headed for the library. Oh, right, I had to keep reminding myself. She’s a teacher, not a librarian.

I also always say that she (and her husband, Dean) are two of the country’s best teachers, and that’s not hyperbole or meaningless flattery either. (If only all teachers were as involved in ALA as Robin was.) The last time I got to talk to her in the hospice facility where she eventually died, she was sitting up in bed and fully alert, fully Robin, talking at the speed of light. She, Dean, our mutual friend Emmie (who is a school librarian), and I talked about the best teaching practices of educators who care about children’s books and getting children fired up about reading. Taking time to read aloud to them daily; having them memorize and recite poetry; doing mock Caldecott voting with them; writing letters back and forth with them about what they’re reading; giving them time to read what they want on their own: these were just some of the things Robin did with her students, who adored her. “I learned all my best teaching practices from you,” Emmie told her that day.

See? It’s not just me, I thought. WWRD? I’m glad my last time with her was precisely that —listening to Robin talk about what she valued as a teacher.

To be clear, I looked to her with what I’ll admit was a fair amount of intimidation too. It was my own self-generated fear. I hid it well, and she was only ever kind to me. I looked up to her a lot and watched closely the way she moved and worked in this field. She had a mind like a steel trap — we also shared a deep and abiding love for creative cursing, and I’ll miss swearing with her — and wrote so succinctly and honestly about books for children. A compliment from her was well-earned. I have one generous professional compliment from her in writing in a thank-you note she once sent me. I treasure it. I always wanted to impress her. When I read the note, I thought she must be mistaken in that way you do when you look up to someone — as if you can never possibly measure up, so how could they have gotten that compliment so wrong?

I heard of her death earlier this evening, and I can’t quite take myself to social media at this point to read all the heartbroken tributes. She touched the lives of countless people, many who knew and loved her much longer than I did. We will all be imprinted by the gleam taken from us in her passing, the incomprehensible Robin-shaped hole in the world. It brings me comfort, however, to know she’s no longer in pain. She didn’t seem afraid of much, but I think the pain may have been way more than she let on.

The other thing that brings me comfort is thinking of one particular morning when I visited her at her home. Robin daily had a string of visitors after she had to retire from teaching due to the bone cancer. I got in line behind all the other people who loved her and visited her weekly in her home. I’d go upstairs to where Robin slept, wake her, and sit on her bed and talk with her. This one morning, our friend Jessica joined us. The three of us sat and talked about the news on the front page of the New York Times; an old photo, framed near her bed, of Robin’s children when they were little and she and Dean were young parents; the gardening that been done by visitors in her front yard; raising children; recipes. I watched her slowly and carefully get dressed and start her day. We helped her downstairs.

Nothing remarkable. An ordinary day with ordinary conversations. But I thought, as over-earnest as this may sound, These moments are what it’s all about. I’m not a religious person. I don’t know if there’s an afterlife. I won’t know till I die. But I was conscious in that very moment of taking it all in, all those extraordinarily ordinary things. There is a sacredness in the loaf of bread a friend brings to you when you’re ill. There is a kind of holiness in a friend showing up to support you down the stairs. There was beauty in the skin on her back, as I saw her change clothes. I drove home that day, wishing I were a poet who could capture this perfectly in a few verses. I’m not a poet, but I let everything else fall away that day and focused just on what was before me, which is all any of us can ever do. As best as we can.

I’ve always loved the phrase “rest in peace.” It’s overused and tired, but it has a truth and economy to it that I appreciate. In Roger Sutton’s 2003 Horn Book interview with Maurice Sendak — Robin had a great story about a curse-filled car ride with the great man himself, and I’m sorry if you never heard it — Sendak said in describing death, “I think the most graceful thing offered us is sleep without dreams. That is so sensible.” So, here’s to Robin’s quiet rest, though if all those rumors about heaven are true, I hope she’s surrounded by books.

Read Robin’s obituary and Martha Parravano’s loving tribute.

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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Comments

  1. Kitty Flynn Kitty Flynn says:

    Jules, this is beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Beautiful tribute, Jules. I’ve always felt it was a privilege to be asked to help care for a friend who’s dying. Hard, of course, but it’s at those moments when you really understand what it means to be human. I love all the photos and stories on Facebook, but I have to stop looking at them because I need to stop crying now.

  3. Oh, Jules. You did her proud. Thank you for this.
    And indeed – heaven and books and rest. All good things. ♥

  4. Oh. You’re a wonderful writer, and a wonderful friend. Love to you, dear Jules. ❤️

  5. Lovely and beautiful, Jules. Here’s to our community drawing a little bit closer to support one another through our shared losses.

  6. Elisa kleven says:

    You made Robin come alive here, Jules. Thanks for your beautiful and , yes, poetic conjuring -up of beloved, much-missed and much needed Robin.

  7. Elisa kleven says:

    You made Robin come alive here, Jules. Thanks for your beautiful and , yes, poetic conjuring -up of beloved, much missed and much needed Robin.

  8. Elisa kleven says:

    Arg sorry this posted twice! Was having trouble with the URL business.

  9. Natacha Liuzzi says:

    Thank you Julie.
    Robin was the real genuine article.
    💟

  10. This is beautiful and perfectly poetic, Jules. Thank you for writing it all down.

  11. Jessica says:

    Beautiful, Jules. Thank you for putting it into words.

  12. Sam Juliano says:

    Such a deep moving and beautifully written tribute to Robin.

  13. Beautiful Jules. Robin was a rare gem indeed. What a gift she was to everyone who crossed her path.

  14. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Thank you, Jules. This is beautiful. I didn’t know until today that she was ill, or had passed away. I’m sending my sincere condolences to all who knew her and her family.

  15. Naomi Shihab Nye says:

    Thank you for this beautiful piece, Jules. Glorious Robin had such delightful, strong power – the image of her diligent little students knitting in a circle as she read to them, poems and stories, at the end of a school day, stays with me always – how many lives did she hearten? Countless number. Including all of ours.

    Love to her family and everyone who treasured her.

  16. Jinx watson says:

    Jules, so heart-felt and down to earth, your words are singing in wonderful Robin’s head now and for a long time….

  17. Dee Dee Beckwith says:

    Thank you so much – I just found this and I’m glad I did. Many times I helped her down those stairs too. So beautiful captured in your words.
    Thanks you,
    Dee Dee (Robin’s little sister)

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